Goldman vs Sabato: Is Herring’s strategy optimum?


    by Paul Goldman

    “Herring goes on attack in attorney-general race” is the headline in today’s Richmond Times Dispatch profile article on the Democratic AG candidate. Given how newspapers – still important venues for influencing voters in off-year lower turnout races – cover campaigns, these profile pieces are doubly important because they tend to signal the “news  angle” taken by reporter’s writing about the campaign which in turn convinces the TV news folks how to “spin” their coverage. So the Herring Attack Dog image has a lot of potential downside risk in the view here at 200 proof. We believe it is also totally unnecessary on a net-net vote winning basis.

    UVA Professor Larry Sabato, the media’s VA political guru, boldly asserts Herring’s best hope is to run this kind of aggressive, attack campaign pointedly aimed at GOP AG candidate Mark Obenshain, not letting “Obenshain get away with redefining himself.” Thus, if Herring wants the image as the aggressive attack guy in this campaign, Sabato says go for it, and the RTD headline says Amen to that.

    BUT: Here at 200-proof, we have been waiting for this first profile type piece to occur post Labor Day to set-up a discussion on this fundamental point of strategy: is it optimum, as Dr. Sabato says,  for Mark Herring to be defined by this RTD headline, or would another strategy – producing a different type of headline image – be better for getting votes on election day? This is a fundamentally important question because Obenshain appears to have the greater financial resources. Do you really want to get into a negative fight with this guy if there is a better more optimum strategy?

    There is no way to prove one strategy is better than another, it all comes down to a matter of judgment. Even after the votes are counted, the question can not be finally resolved. The winner might have followed a bad strategy, the loser a far better one: but voter reaction to the candidates for Governor might have determined the final down ballot result in the AG’s race.

    HOWEVER, I do believe there is a logical analysis in support of my gut instinct: in 2013, the current Herring strategy is not the optimum one, there is a better campaign strategy in terms of getting additional votes, above and beyond the ballots certain to fall into your column. Or put another way: Professor Sabato’s strategy, the one being followed by the Herring campaign, is surely the conventional approach, “the road usually taken” to play off the poem by Robert Frost. On paper, it makes all the sense in the world for Herring given the DEM AG’s basic approach to the campaign this year.

    HOWEVER #2: This year, I believe the “road not taken”, as Mr. Frost suggests, is the one that could make all the difference in a close AG’s election. Here’s why.

    As Dr. Sabato correctly points out, history and logic suggest that Republican Obenshain will win if Cuccinelli defies my prediction and comes out on top in the Governor’s race. Virginia’s two major parties basically reached their current alignment in 1977, after the historic battle between Democrat turned independent Henry Howell and Democratic former Governor turned Republican Miles Godwin in 1973, a race brilliant covered by Dr. Sabato in one of his many books. It is also the setting for the best novel on Virginia politics, The Shad Treatment by Garrett Epps.

    While 36 years of data points are way too slim to draw any historic axioms, it is instructive that in this period, the GOP AG candidate has won every time the Republican GUV candidate triumphed. However, it is also true that each of these GOP Governors won by landslide margins. Godwin won a close race: the Democratic AG candidate, running effectively unopposed, won easily.

    Herring is not the incumbent: no VA AG has ever been defeated for re-election. Thus, Dr. Sabato is correct in assuming that if Cuccinelli wins, then Obenshain is the heavy favorite despite Herring running the best attack campaign ever.

    Dr. Sabato is also correct in predicting that Dem LG candidate Ralph Northam will win easily despite current polls showing the race not completely lost for Jackson. The best GOP conservative website, Bearing Drift, is already conceding the race to Ralphie Boy, finding GOP LG candidate E.W. Jackson living proof that maybe Columbus was wrong, there is actually an edge that one could over.

    I don’t back down from my prediction of a sweep back when Sabato was calling Cuccinelli a “sure winner” if the campaign unfolded precisely as it has in the succeeding 4 months.  I could be wrong of course, Larry could be right. It is mentioned only to point out that Larry wasn’t exactly right in believing a negative attack McAuliffe campaign would produce a sure victory for Cuccinelli. So maybe the same conventional wisdom now being applied to Herring should also be re-examined even though, again, it might be right.

    HOWEVER #3: I am concerned when I think a candidate is  not running an optimal strategy especially when it seems to me this optimal strategy should not be hard to discern. In that regard, the conventional attack-strategy being urged on Herring – and apparently adopted by Herring – naturally concerns me.

    Fact: Herring, despite all the advantages, barely won the AG’s nomination against a rookie, albeit very talented, late-starting challenger. By and large, Herring ran the same kind of strategy as he is running now. It didn’t prove very convincing to even a DEM audience.

    HOWEVER #4: Herring made some good moves in the primary as we wrote at the time. But the results should be a warning to the Herring team: he might not be a very effective attack dog, it might not run true with key voters.

    HOWEVER #5: But true, you could counter by saying the reason for the under-performance of the Herring primary campaign was the fact he wasn’t running against Cuccinelli. There was no reason to think Fairfax would be any less Cuccinellish, so the attack had little resonance in the context of that campaign. In the general election, with Herring’s opponent being the AG candidate on Cuccinelli’s ticket and with Obenshain being a former Senate posse buddy of Cuccinelli, the Dr. Sabato and Team Herring  attack strategy should finally win them oodles of votes in November according to conventional theory.

    HOWEVER #6: The fundamental element of any campaign strategy is to ADD VOTES TO YOUR COLUMN FROM VOTERS YOU WOULD NOT LIKELY OTHERWISE GET. The Democratic candidate for AG isn’t starting a 0, and thus having to figure out how to get 50.1 of the electorate. Any Democratic candidate for AG this is year is going to get the support of certain blocs of voters even if they don’t campaign, even if they never say a word about Mr. Obenshain. That is to say, Herring has those voters, he doesn’t have to appeal to them.

    HOWEVER #7: There is nothing Mr. Herring can do to increase partisan Dem voter turnout on election day. This is a job strictly for the Dem party machinery and Terry McAuliffe. The AG candidate is along for the turnout ride so to speak, any money he spends on turnout is wasted money relative to winning the majority needed on election day.

    HOWEVER #8: Terry MAC will therefore be using his vast resources and campaign team smarts to max out the anti-Cuccinelli “too far out of the mainstream” vote on election day. Those voters will go to the polls on election day and vote a STRAIGHT DEM TICKET with maybe a small drop-off for AG if Obenshain follows his smart strategy of running from his record. MOST CANDIDATES RUN FROM THEIR RECORD if you know much about politics. Otherwise, they couldn’t get elected!

    HOWEVER #9: Thus, from a strategy point of view, the Herring campaign has to weigh the cost/time/lost opportunities relative to trying to max out the anti-Cuccinelli/anti-Obenshain vote with their current attack strategy vs a strategy that paints a different image for Herring.

    HOWEVER #10: In the heat of the 2013 contest, especially since Herring has tried to compensate for his switching on his 2006 gay marriage/civil union vote along with a few others, the clear anti-Cuccinelli feelings among key blocs of female voters pulls the DEM AG campaign into the attack strategy currently being employed. This is hard to resist as Dr. Sabato and others feel safe in advocating the conventional wisdom, that is to say, going after Obenshain as Cuccinelli-lite. We at 200-proof get that, we fall prey to it ourselves at time. There is no perfect campaign or commentary. This is why one has to constantly rethink what they are doing, because in politics, the path of least resistance is always Newton’s First law of motion.


    Gut-wise, a far more positive image would be NET, NET better for Herring on election day. In turn, this requires the Dem AG candidate to avoid having a strategy that leads to the type of headline in the RTD today. Again: If the working press believes the attack strategy is your MO, that it is the fundamental nature of your claim to the office, then they will spin their coverage of you that way. Moreover, you will “love it” since by definition this is your strategy.

    However in 2013, I believe the conventional attack strategy being employed against Obenshain will LEAVE VOTES ON THE TABLE as the saying goes.

    I don’t know Mark Herring well enough to say the following but I will say it anyway: Being seen as the attack dog strikes me as out of sync with his overall personality and mind set, that is to say I believe he is campaigning in a uniform that doesn’t suit him ideally. That’s just my hunch.

    This has always struck me as high risk for a candidate since in our political culture, the candidate is the best advertisement no matter how much TV you can afford, no matter how good your social media campaign.

    And in that regard, what a candidate says is less important in a close race than the basic “feel” the voters get from the candidate’s image.

    Bottom line: In my view, Obenshain is being given a gift that Jonnie Williams couldn’t afford if Herring allows himself to painted as the attack dog. In my view, this image is always a net loser, even if your attacks are right on the money. Why? The swing independent vote – and it could decide this election even given the super partisanship out there this year – equates that image with the wrong kind of officeholder.

    IF Obenshain were to do what Wilder and Warner and Kaine agreed to do: let the other guy campaign in a manner that allowed us to paint the GOP candidate as the attack dog – then he will get 2% more votes than he otherwise could get.

    The 200-proof view: In politics, a good offense beats a good defense all the time. So while we agree with Herring wanting to be seen as the one taking the game to the opponent, we question whether his strategy is the best one for 2013 given how it is likely to play out.

    Net, net: at 200-proof, we don’t believe spending the rest of the campaign trying to paint Obenshain as Cuccinelli-lite is the optimum strategy because in the end, Herring is going to get that voter anyway with very little slippage. If it is enough for him to win, then basically he can run the Warren Harding campaign and relax.

    But if those voters aren’t enough, then Herring is costing himself votes because the voters he will need will tune out the anti-Cuccinelli, anti-Jackson, anti-Obenshain yadda, yadda, yadda, 24/7 in his race, it will lead to a slight backlash. Herring risks looking shrill and without substance: and this will play into the Obenshain narrative that Herring is too liberal for Virginia. Pushing Obenshain to the right isn’t the right strategy if it allows him to push you to the left.

    Here at 200-proof, we don’t think today’s RTD headline is what Herring should want. It gives Obenshain too big an undeserved gift. Right now, it might not matter. But if 200-proof is wrong about there being an irresistible McAuliffe pull on election day all the way down ballot, the RTD headline might be seen as an unheeded omen.  


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